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August 19, 2010

Guest blog post: composer Joel Puckett on Christopher Rouse's 'Odna Zhizn'

Last winter, a major new work by Christopher Rouse was premiered by the New York Philharmonic. Titled "Odna Zhizn (A Life)," it's an "homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me," the extraordinary Baltimore-born composer wrote. The score, which Rouse called "a public portrait" and "a private love letter," was generated in part by a personal code, with letters of the alphabet given specific pitches and time-durations. I'm hoping that the Baltimore Symphony, an ardent champion of the composer's music, will soon program the piece. Meanwhile, here's a guest blog post by composer Joel Puckett, a good friend of Rouse's who was in New York for the premiere and who recently sent me some recollections of the event that he agreed to share on this space -- it's a wee bit after the fact, I know, but the fact that he's still so enthusiastic about a February premiere says a lot. (I'd like to see the BSO program some of Puckett's powerful music soon, too, by the way.) -- TIM 

I met up with a trio of composers before the concert and the four of us had dinner across the street from the hall. We traded our favorite Rouse stories and wondered what kind of piece Chris might have cooked up given the very cryptic program note that had been published.

Our individual expectations for the piece were probably more revealing about our own music than our 'expert' predictions. One of us thought that it might be similar to the flute concerto, given the focus on a loved one. Another thought that it might be similar to the second symphony, given the line from the program note, "Her life has not been an easy one." And I thought (hoped?) that it would be more like the sound world of the Requiem.

We were all stunned in hearing the piece. I was reminded of the line sometimes credited to Beethoven, “Music must surprise and satisfy at every turn”. It turns out each of us were right and, at the same time, all of us were wrong. In "Odna Zhizn," Chris manages

to sound very much like himself while at the same time pushing his harmonies and textures in completely new directions by simplifying them. I don’t think any of us were expecting the incredibly straightforward and STAGGERINGLY beautiful opening of the piece. To my ears, this is Chris boldly allowing himself to speak simply and directly with devastating effect.

As we walked down 65th street, we were collectively inspired by Rouse's willingness to push his expression. It would be very easy for him to sit back and write the same piece over and over for the rest of his life. Not that any of us were surprised that he is still a growing and restless artist, it was just dazzling to come face to face with such powerful evidence.

Joel Puckett

Composer-In-Residence, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras

Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:31 AM | | Comments (1)


A recording of Odna Zhizn is also available as part of the New York Philharmonic's iTunes recording series and the weekly radio broadcast series. Curious readers can purchase a copy through iTunes or listen to the complete premiere performance at

Thanks very much for that info. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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